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Significant Court of Appeals’ Family Law Decisions in 2014

Clarkston Legal Jan. 4, 2015

Every year there are multiple family law decisions the contribute to the jurisprudence of Michigan’s family law. There are too many decisions to summarize here in this blog post. Therefore, we have summarized the ones we feel are the most significant to our readers, colleagues and client prospects. Most of the decisions referenced in this post are the unpublished decisions of the Michigan Court of Appeals thus, although instructive, they do not bind lower family courts.

Spousal Support and a Separate Inheritance. In Valentine v Valentine, the spousal support payor moved the Court to modify his spousal support obligation on the basis his ex-spouse received an inheritance from her mother and thus, did not need his support. The Court of Appeals reversed a family court’s reliance on the probate court file; the lower court took what is termed “judicial notice” of the probate file, meaning that file would come into the divorce file without the usual evidentiary requirements. The ex-wife cried “foul”, and the Court of Appeals agreed on the grounds that the support payee should have been allowed to probe the relevance of the probate court file, and should have been allowed to present legal argument on the lower court’s decision to take judicial notice of the unrelated probate file. The Court of Appeals was also concerned that the lower court assessed fault to the support payee on the basis of the probate file, but noted that portions of the probate file were not admitted into evidence.

Family Court Must Accept the Parties’ Stipulated Facts. In Wolf v Mahar, the parties stipulated during a post-judgment dispute that neither party was aware of a retirement policy of the State of Michigan [a “recoupment” policy] that would generate significant expenses. The family court assessed the cost unevenly against the alternate payee, favoring the plan’s participant. In reversing that decision, the Court of Appeals ruled that a lower court must accept a stipulation of the parties and give effect to their factual stipulation. This ruling had the effect of evenly dividing the costs and expenses of the recoupment policy.

No Paternity for Biological Father that Knew Mother was Married. The recently enacted Revocation of Paternity Act was designed to give standing for an unwed biological father to challenge the paternity of a child born while Mother was married to another man. The Act was passed, in part, to address those heartbreaking situations when, although a husband is not the biological father, the real father had no right to ask a family court for parenting time, custody, or any connection with the child whatsoever. But there are certain conditions a bio-dad must establish prior to just walking into his childl’s life. In Sprenger v Bickle, the biological father was out of luck, despite the new Revocation of Paternity Act, because he knew Mother was married at the time of conception [it must be a deception conception whereby the sperm source is unaware the Mother is married]. Also, bio-dad failed to establish that conception of the child occurred subsequent to Mother’s divorce; another way to gain standing in the family court to establish certain basic rights.

Divorce Judgment Does Not Bar Revocation of Paternity. In Glaubius v Glaubius, Mother moved the family court to revoke her ex-husband’s paternity of a minor child whom the Mother asserted was born out of weblock. The family court denied Mother’s motion; this decision was reversed by the Court of Appeals which held that a judgment of divorce entered by default does not conclusively establish paternity.

Fraudulent Paternity Claims of Parent and Grandparents. This is an odd case involving lies told by a pregnant Mother and her parents to an unsuspecting suitor. The plaintiff in Renel v Fortuna was told by Defendant-Mother and her parents that he was the father of Mother’s child; he was not the father. In his complaint for silent fraud and emotional distress, Plaintiff alleged that he relied on these misrepresentations and married Defendant-Mother. The lower court dismissed the case, and the Court of Appeals agreed, on the basis there is no duty for the Mother or the grandparents to inform Plaintiff he was not the father of the child. The Court of Appeals did admit, however, that the question of the existence of a duty -a question of law for the court- for the Mother to disclose paternity was a much closer call. Getting around this, the Court of Appeals relied on the release provisions contained in the parties’ judgment of divorce.

Military Mom Loses Custody. In Kubicki v Sharpe, a military mom, prior to her enlistment, defended Father’s motion for temporary custody, and prosecuted her own change of domicile motion. The family court ordered temporary custody for Father and the Court of Appeals held that since Father filed his motion prior to Mother’s enlistment, the “active duty” provision of the Child Custody Act -prohibiting modification of custody while a parent is on active military duty- was not available for Mother to preserve her custody status. Shortly after the parenting motions were filed, Mother completed basic training and sought leave of the family court to move with the minor child to the location of her first military deployment.

Waiver of Surviving Spouse Retirement Benefits. In this case, although the divorce was entered in the family court 20-years ago, the question of the identity of the “surviving spouse” for the Husband’s pension was re-opened on appeal. In Ruff v Ruff, the judgment was silent as to the surviving spouse benefits of the pension. The participant was retired and in pay status at the time of his divorce. He subsequently remarried and executed a beneficiary designation shortly prior to his death. When he died, the pension administrator denied the new wife’s request for payment of the decedent’s benefits on the basis that the new wife was not the participant’s spouse at the time of his retirement. The pension administrator began paying the participant’s ex-spouse and the new wife sued. The lower court ruled that the ex-spouse waived any interest in surviving spousal benefits in the pension through the silence of the judgment of divorce. This decision was reversed by the Court of Appeals on the grounds that to be effective, a waiver of surviving spouse benefits of a pension must be more explicit and silence is insufficient to constitute a valid waiver of this benefit.

Undiagnosed Psychological Condition Does Not Provide Basis to Set Aside Settlement. In Bush v Bush, Wife agreed to the terms of a settlement agreement but later backed out claiming that an undiagnosed psychological and cognitive condition, when combined with the stress of her divorce proceeding, rendered her incapable of coming to a valid agreement. Wife sought to have the agreement set aside pending a psychological evaluation. Neither the family court nor the court of appeals agreed with Wife, holding that an undiagnosed psychological condition constitutes a basis to set aside a settlement agreement. A family court has discretion to determine whether a party offers his or her valid consent in placing a settlement agreement on the record.

Separate Assets Despite Valid Prenuptial Agreement. The Michigan Court of Appeals ruled in Shariff v Shariff that, despite an enforceable prenuptial agreement, the family court nevertheless maintains powers to equitably divide powers under the divorce statute which include the invasion of a spouse’s separate estate. To properly invade the separate estate, the family court must find the non-propertied party made contributions to the acquisition, improvement, and accumulation of the separate property.